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The Worth of Values. Explaining the Contribution of Religious Voluntary Associations to Democracy

Wed, July 13, 4:30 to 6:00pm, TBA


A case study in two local groups of religiously inspired volunteers in Rome (Fonović in preparation) developed a research question about the interlock between the subjective meanings and the societal impacts of organized volunteering. Looking at the dual nature of these associations of volunteers – Vincentian Voluntary Groups - at the same time religious and third sector organizations, local chapters of a federation that is part of a globally diffused 400-years old Catholic movement in the historical institutionalism perspective, imposed a reflection on the distinctive nature and the cultural functions of the voluntary organizations.
On the example of the Vincentian volunteering, in the paper we propose an original theoretical model for interpreting the value-driven organization-based volunteering as a characteristic and characterizing belief system (Usó-Doménech Nescolarde-Selva 2016) and argue that in this lies the political role of religious organized volunteering, regardless of its generally limited scope of social service.
We move from delimiting the contours of the Vincentian institutional identity (Gramsci 1975, Filippini 2012) on the raster of history, social context and discourse and identify within it the dynamics (Glynn 2017) by which the individual agency of volunteers interacts with the structure of the institution. In this we follow how the core concept of ‘love’ at the basis of the Vincentian charism operates a rise in normativity (Boltanski Thévenot 1991) from the existential individual dimension (Arendt 1996) to an alternative vision of economic and political relationships in the public sphere (PCJP 2004). The essential element and the absolute protagonist of this ultimately political dynamics is the association of volunteers acting for a cause of general interest upon shared motivation. We explain the functions of the religious voluntary association in aggregating, transmitting and upgrading a set of values in order to demonstrate that in this lies the distinctive nature of this particular sub-segment of the third sector based on voluntary work, interpreted as a practice of the sphere of ‘action’ (Arendt 1958). From the routine activities of the local groups and self-reflection of volunteers we distill the geometry of rules, roles, interests and strategic exchanges which “lock in patterns of collective action” (Padgett Ansell 1993). In this way, through personal agentification, interpersonal relationships and organizational positioning the Vincentian system of beliefs infuses the public sphere with a living everyday proposition of an alternative economy of worth (Boltanski Thévenot 1991).
The interpretative model we propose constitutes a methodological tool for further studies with interesting policy and practice implications, in particular for progressing the demonstration of the contributions of organized volunteering to the objectives of equality and justice. But at the moment, the most pressing considerations our paper urges, insist on the present moment of crisis of religious voluntary associations, compressed between the loss of attractivity of religious institutions and the bureaucratization turn of the third sector.